A Canterbury Story
By Sheila Mason Gale
We are fortunate in Canterbury to have one of the teachers who taught in a one-room schoolhouse before Dr. Helen Baldwin School was built. Her name is Frances Bingham.
In 1936 Frances took a three-year training course at Willimantic State Normal School, which is now Eastern Connecticut State University. There was an opening in Canterbury at the Westminster one-room schoolhouse, which was located across the street from the Westminster Congregational Church. The schoolhouse is still standing and has since been converted into a single family home. She was thrilled her first day of school because she was going to do something she liked and get paid for it. She was the teacher of grades one through eight and had 32 students.
One of her students was Clifford Green. He was 15 and had enrolled in a technical school to learn electrical work, but the class was cancelled so Clifford decided to come back to the Westminster school until he turned 16. He worked for the Town of Canterbury for a time and when he grew up he served as a Brooklyn Selectman and was well known as a county sheriff.
In the 1930’s there were no snow days or starting late or cancellations--students went to school every day. September 21, 1938 started out as usual. It was raining, but then the winds began to blow and the winds got stronger and stronger. It was the day of the 1938 Category 5 hurricane. The winds were becoming stronger and she could not get one of the windows in the school latched. She was balancing on a desk trying to make the latch close, but it was not working. Finally, one of her first grade students, Conrad Beauchene, suggested she put a nail in it at an angle and it will hold the window closed. That first grader was right and the window stayed closed. Frances said the Beauchene family were carpenters and that first grader must have been paying attention to his family’s work.
The older children could make it home the day of the hurricane, but two little ones who lived on Brooklyn Road, Pauline Pelletier and Pauline Provost, had to be taken home by Tom Bingham and a worker from the paper mill in Occum.
The school was about a mile and half away from Frances’ house on Bingham Road. In the winter, when there was a lot of snow, four of her students from Bingham Road would follow behind Frances and step into her footprints in the snow all the way to school.
There was very little space on the schoolhouse grounds for children to play at recess so she would take the children across the street and play baseball on the front lawn of the Westminster Congregational Church.
The children loved to do art. Frances used every kind of item she could find or collect for art projects. She discovered if you smoothed buttermilk over chalk drawings they would not smear.
One of the projects she did with her students was “How do we determine our taxes in the Town”. Each student would draw a picture of what they wanted such as a house and a barn and then the number of animals they wanted such as cows, horses, chickens or goats. The older children were assigned the job of being Assessors and they would agree on the amount of assessment for each item. The children then compared their drawing to the assessment and they could see how much tax they would be required to pay.
She taught in Canterbury for 6 years, then raised her family and went back to teaching in the Town of Hampton for 21 years.
She met her husband Newton Bingham at the Canterbury Grange where they did square dances. They were married in 1938 and had three children, Mary Eugenia, Newton James and Janice Elaine. She was a grange member for over 50 years and enjoyed helping with events to benefit the community.
In 1938 she and Newton lived in the Bingham homestead on Bingham Road. There were only three houses on the road, Binghams, Utzs and Sigmund Olsen. Bingham Road was a dirt road; there was no electricity, no phone or mail delivery. Eventually, Newton’s mother broke off some land from the homestead about a ½ mile away and they built the home she lives in today.
Frances taught Sunday School at Westminster Congregational Church, sang in the choir and played the piano. Agnes Wright from Waterford taught her and also her daughter, Janice, how to play the piano. When Frances no longer played for the church, Janice took over the job. When her girls were young they joined 4-H. She became a leader and helped teach girls to make clothes and when her son was in Cub Scouts she became a den mother.
Her son Newton married Connie and they live in Alaska and she has enjoyed traveling there and visiting them and her grandchildren.
Frances became interested in genealogy and she took a course in Hanover put on by a woman from the Latter Day Saints. In tracing the Bingham family she learned that in 1652, Thomas Bingham and his widowed mother Anna settled in the Saybrook, Connecticut settlement. Anna eventually married William W. Backus and had ten more children.
Many have asked her “How do you think an education in a one-room school house compares with what they do today?” Frances said her students went on to become lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses, construction workers and served in the Armed Forces – the same results as students who were educated in separate classrooms.
I think part of her students’ success was because she was a dedicated, creative and caring teacher.